“Monks, locals and pilgrims still come here, still prostrate themselves and go through their ministrations, but they do it against a background of the constant clicks of camera shutters.”
This is one of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism, being the birthplace of Tsongkhpa, who founded the Gelugpa (yellow hat) branch of buddhism – the sect that later produced the first Dalai Llama.
As architecturally impressive as Kumbum is, there’s a horribly wrong feel to the place. For the first time, we saw Tibetans and Buddhist monks and our smiles weren’t returned tenfold.
This sacred place is now swarming with tour groups of Han Chinese mobbing the people as they try to get on with their worship. It’s clear that this has been imposed on them and they’re not happy.
The difference between here and Xia He is like the difference between seeing a tiger in the wild and seeing one of those heartbroken beasts pacing back and forth in a zoo cage, perpetually tormented by children.
Monks, locals and pilgrims still come here, still prostrate themselves and go through their ministrations, but they do it against a background of the constant clicks of camera shutters and chattering of massed tour groups.
Maybe if I hadn’t been to more isolated monasteries before, I wouldn’t have found this place so unsettling, as you marvel at the exquisite architecture (ironically, only restored to its prior beauty thanks to the tourism), there’s a clear tension in the air.
It’s well worth a visit to see the beautifully restored temples and buildings, courtesy of a fat bag of cash from the Chinese governent, but the price that’s been paid for it means we didn’t hang around long.
Because of its status as a government supported tourist resort within China, and its proximity to the provincial capital Xining, access is easy.
You can get a bus from Xining bus station, though if you don’t speak much Chinese, you’ll be relying on mime, pointing at your guide book and the kindness of strangers.
If you’re all mimed out by this stage, most hostels will help you arrange a day trip in a cab and in the summer there are enough backpackers around for you to hook up with and make a big enough group for it to be pretty cheap. You can get to Xining by train from Beijing.
It’ll take you the best part of 24 hours, so best to get an overnighter and book a hard sleeper (硬卧 Pronounced, ying wor). Alternatively, you can split the journey, travelling via XiAn (home of the terracotta warriors), or Lanzhou.
Thre’s not much to see in Lanzhou itself, but you can use it as a base to head north to Jiayuguan, where the Great wall ends at the meeting point of the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi desert.